The vaccine and the Iron Curtain: how Sabin and Chumakov beat polio

Epidemics come (and hopefully) go away when the right vaccines are developed and all, or at least a large part, of a country’s people are properly vaccinated. Polio was a disease that affected millions of children around the world, causing death and paralysis. I remember that in 1948 in Hungary two of my friends caught the virus: one was lame all his life, the other died within a few weeks.

It has long been known that there are two main versions of a vaccine, live and dead; the live must be made less powerful before it can be used. And the dead must be killed first and the hope is that when it is applied it will still be able to produce antibodies. Maybe living things are better because this is how nature produces the virus, so they can give rise to more antibodies. For polio, the two varieties, dead and alive, were developed in the United States by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin (both immigrants) respectively. There was actually another difference between the two vaccines. Salk had to be injected, Sabin was given to the children with a lump of sugar.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, the number of polio cases was increasing. The question to ask was, “Should we ask Americans to share with us both the vaccine and how it is made?” A delegation made up of Mikhail Chumakov, his wife Marina Voroshilova and Anatoly Smorodintsev, all three well-known virologists, visited America in early 1956. Chumakov was at the time director of the Ivanovsky Institute. They visited the Salk and Sabin labs and had discussions with other American scientists. At the time, the dead Salk virus was already being tested in America. The vaccine worked well. The inventor was celebrated. The live Sabin vaccine had not yet been licensed.

Chumakov asked Sabin to send him the live vaccine to be tested and produced. Sabin sent his strains of the live attenuated virus, enough for 300,000 vaccinations. This was the start of a ten-year collaboration between Sabin and Chumakov. They had a lot in common. They were both born to poor parents, Chumakov in the Tulskiy region of Russia and Sabin in Byalistok in the Pale of Settlement. They both made it to college (Sabin in New York, Chumakov in Moscow). Both have become well-known researchers in virology; Chumakov rose to fame early in his life for identifying the virus that causes tick-borne encephalitis. Both ran their laboratories with an iron fist.

Russian scientists started their mass vaccination program in 1958. What is surprising is that they managed to get permission to do so. Much of the objection was based on the fact that the Sabin vaccine was not yet approved for use in the United States. The argument was, “Why do you think the Americans are providing us with this vaccine?” They don’t want to try them on their own people. They want us to face the consequences of failure. The most radical opponents of the vaccine believed it was an imperialist plot to kill all Soviet children. According to one story, the permission was initially refused, but they managed to get it with the support of Anastas Mikoyan, a member of the Politburo, the highest organ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, whom Chumakov knew in person. .

Sabin refused to patent his vaccine. He gave all the relevant information to Chumakov, allowing him to produce the vaccine in his own laboratory. Thus, the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to develop, produce, conduct mass testing and license the Sabin vaccine. In total, they vaccinated 16.5 million children in the Soviet Union. They also offered their vaccine to Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where extensive trials took place soon after. Chumakov has also exported his vaccine to more than 60 countries around the world. Have there been any objections to this collaboration? After all, there was a Cold War and a fairly thick iron curtain separated the participants. Sabin got the green light from the US State Department, despite some Defense Department objections. There were of course objections in the USSR from the MGB (as the secret police were called at the time), but they were rejected by Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan. The campaign turned out to be very successful. US health authorities have acknowledged that the delivery of the vaccine and the evaluation of its efficacy have been carried out to a high standard, which has led to its approval without further trials in the United States.

As a result of the mass vaccination campaign, polio was completely eradicated in the Soviet Union. Sabin, in recognition of his role in providing the vaccine and offering further collaboration, was awarded the Order of Peoples Friendship Medal from the Soviet government. Globally, the Sabin vaccine reduced polio cases from 350,000 in 1988 to around 650 in 2011.

Most of the information for this article comes from a lecture and treatise by a Hungarian virologist, an article in the American scientist, several articles in the British medical journal and a short biography of Chumakov, both in the Russian version and in the English version of Wikipedia, resurrecting my old habit of comparing the Western and Russian versions. They were virtually identical except for one sentence. The three relevant sentences of the English version are shown below:

“From 1950 he was director of the Ivanovsky Institute of Virology in Moscow. In 1952, as part of the anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union, known as the Doctor’s Plot, he was fired from the Ivanovsky Institute for refusing to fire Jewish associates. In 1955 he organized a new research institute near Moscow.

In the Russian version, the middle sentence, referring to the conspiracy of the doctors and the dismissal of Chumakov, is missing. Well, not very surprisingly; glasnost had only a short life in Russia. Wikipedia is apparently censored – or is it self-censored? I do not know. I guess it is even closer to the truth than the Bolshaya Sovietskaya Ensiklopedia (Great Soviet Encyclopedia), which was always busy rewriting the past according to the latest twists in the Party line.

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